Part 3 Urita: the Matriarch's Burden

This is part 3 of an 8-part story sequence featuring Joaquín Reyes and his family. For two years, Sustainable Harvest International Field Trainer Mariano Navarro has worked with the Reyes, who are just about to enter the third phase of our program. To learn more about our phases and methodology, click here. Otherwise, read on!

Urita - photo by Michele Christle

Urita - photo by Michele Christle

Urita Navarro (Joaquín’s wife and the matriarch of the family) is in demand. That’s why we’ve snuck up behind the house to chat quietly with her in the shade.

Laundry hangs gently on the line just below us. There’s a hint of humidity in the air and a veil of foreboding clouds overhead. A drought has been plaguing Piedras Gordas for months and everyone is hoping for rain. From this little vista, we have a somewhat obstructed view of the Reyes’ home, including the thatched roof over the outdoor kitchen where Urita has been cooking up divine cornmeal tortillas.  The view is obstructed because of the trees the Reyes have planted in an effort to reforest around their home.

From where we sit, we can hear the people and animals that make the Reyes’ home such a lively place. In addition to the family members, there are a handful of animals—chickens, kittens, a middle-aged dog, and a litter of puppies that the Reyes’ decided to take in after their mother abandoned them.

Urita, we’re coming to find, is a bit like Velcro. When she was busy in the kitchen earlier, the puppies were asleep under the warmth of the woodstove. They’ve since followed us up the hill and are play-fighting in close proximity. Puppies, children, and adults alike want to stay close to Urita—her wisdom, calmness, and generosity are a soothing combination.


Dappled sunlight highlights the white in Urita’s otherwise raven black hair, which is tied up in a ponytail with a bright yellow scrunchie. She gently flicks an ant crawling on her arm to the ground. The ant marches on.

Urita hasn’t always lived in Piedras Gordas—she came here when she married Joaquín, 27 years ago. Previously, she lived with her mother and father in Santa Marta, which is about two hours from Piedras Gordas on foot or 30 minutes by car.

Urita is no stranger to farming—her own father was a subsistence farmer like Joaquín. Whenever there was work to do on her father’s farm, she always helped. Thus, when she came to live with Joaquín, farming was already familiar—albeit via more conventional methods.

Noting the patience required to have success with sustainable agriculture methods, we asked Urita if she ever felt frustrated or impatient with Joaquín’s approach to farming.

“No!” Urita quickly asserts, “I’ve always had faith in him. I’ve never been tempted to use faster methods like synthetic agrochemicals or anything like that. Never.”

Part of Urita’s patience comes from her own knowledge and experience. In 1993, when she was pregnant with their first son, Eliaquim, they borrowed a book by someone in Costa Rica that illustrated the effects of farming with synthetic agrochemicals on farmers' bodies.

“We looked at that book together, thought about our family, and decided right then and there that we would never use chemicals. It was as simple as that.”

Though Urita didn’t attend the initial soil conservation workshop that so inspired Joaquín back in 1994, when he came back from it he was excited to share with her what he learned.  Today, through the additional training and support they are getting from our program, Urita and Joaquín are continuing forward with their quest for knowledge, health, and environmental conservation.

Mano y mano,” Urita says, “we always work together.”


As the matriarch of such a large family, Urita has a lot of responsibilities.

“I always have work to do—lots of advising. Not just my children, but we have grandchildren living with us, too. And, my daughter in law, she needs advice too. I want to teach all of them to embrace nature and live in harmony with it. I want to guide them.”

Urita recognizes, however, that even the best of intentions are not a guarantee—even intentions backed with sincere actions.

“All of our children have their own aspirations,” says Urita. “Some want to study medicine, they want to make money. If any of them decide that they’d rather go in that direction, I just hope that they’d hire someone to keep working on the farm with us in their place so that we can continue on in the same manner that we have been working in.”

Touching the tips of her fingers to her heart, Urita says, “I hope our kids grow up as good people, but I know that drugs, alcohol, and gangs are always a threat. I’ve seen other parents lose their children to drugs. If that happened to one of my children, what could I expect from them? Nothing. I hope they won’t veer down that road but I know it’s a temptation and I expect it always will be.”

Urita stares down at her bare feet---she’s kicked off her dusty crocs. Several raindrops fall around us. Without a word, some of the grandchildren scamper up the path to take the laundry off the line. For a moment we think we might have to alight and take shelter but the clouds are just crying wolf.

Shifting on her perch, Urita says, “It’s important for Joaquín and I to set a good example for our children. We give them constant reminders and guidance. We tell them ‘You can’t be drunk in front of your children.’ We try to show them how to keep on the straight and narrow but ultimately, it’s up to them.”


Of the work and trainings completed with their field trainer Mariano so far, what Urita appreciates the most are the wood-conserving stove and composting latrine.

The wood-conserving stove not only provides a cozy nap zone for the puppies, it’s more efficient than what they cooked on before.

“The new wood stove doesn’t blast my legs with heat like the old one did, so it makes cooking a lot more enjoyable,” Urita says.

Urita prepping cornmeal for tortillas - photo by Bailey McWilliams

Urita prepping cornmeal for tortillas - photo by Bailey McWilliams

In addition, the stove requires significantly less wood. The stove has four burners instead of two and it’s possible to stand at any angle around it, meaning that several people can cook on it at the same time without getting into each other's way. This stove not only emits less smoke, it also directs the smoke it produces away from the kitchen, meaning that both the children and adults can be around the cooking area without smoke-induced tears and coughs or the threat of chronic bronchitis in the future. In a home so full of humans both large and small, this is not to be understated.

Urita also notes the benefits of the composting toilet the Reyes’ built with the help of Mariano, SHI, and the St. Paul Newman's Center. Prior to the existence of their composting toilet, the Reyes were part of the 2.4 billion people who lack access to improved sanitation. Having access to a functioning toilet may seem like a small thing to some, but to a family like the Reyes, it makes all the difference in the world. For years, Joaquín had tried to build latrines but because of the soil composition every latrines he built collapsed and failed.

The entire family, from the oldest to the youngest, has been trained on how to use and take care of the latrine. All of them, it seems, feel an immense sense of pride about its existence in their home. This latrine is positive not only from a public health standpoint, it also composts the waste disposed there, using a double chamber design. The compost is then used as a source of nitrogen and organic matter to further improve the soil. This solution, like so many we implement with our partner families, is a win-win for both people and the planet.

A composting latrine in Tranquilla, Panama, very similar to what the Reyes have - photo by Daysbeth López

A composting latrine in Tranquilla, Panama, very similar to what the Reyes have - photo by Daysbeth López


In the next phase of our program, the Reyes will participate in trainings on small business practices. Urita’s very excited about this. Eventually, she'd like to sell her family's products (coffee, tortillas, empanadas, vegetables, etc.) from an open air ranchito with a palm roof. A ranchito like the one Urita has in mind would be a welcome complement to the tiny, ubiquitous, and heavily depended on convenience stores (or kioscos) that carry soda, processed foods, and little else. At the end of the day, this poor diet creates a heavy burden on the national health system. Diabetes is an epidemic in Panama and many other countries across Central America and the global south.

Urita has great aspirations for their ranchito. “Everything we’ll sell will be organic,” she says.

The existence of an all-organic ranchito in Piedras Gordas, therefore, would be revolutionary. It’s yet another example of the power of role models and positive examples. Both Urita and Joaquín know that it’s more powerful to show others a way to be healthy than it is to speak dogmatically or fanatically. 

In the last story we talked about patience and Joaquín’s bounty of it. This quality is not Joaquín’s alone—it’s a trait that both he and Urita share. In order to ensure that the work they’ve started on the farm will have the ultimate effect they desire, they have to have a long sense of time. They have to think beyond their lifetime—they see their children as part of the continuation of what they started. That said, their children face a different set of pressures and influences than they did or do.

In reflecting on the past 27 years, Urita says, “It’s been a special time we’ve had, working on the farm. It’s helped us to come together as a family. My hope is that no matter what, our children will be able to help us continue our work on the farm, and that they’ll continue caring for the earth. The earth is still sick, it’s still hurting. We need to keep planting and growing in order to heal it.”

Stay tuned for the next installment, featuring Eliaquim, the oldest son (available Wednesday, December 16th).